Battle of the Ramen
Kansas City is catching on to the ramen craze.
My first experience with ramen came, predictably, in college. It was one of the few dinners feasible in the depressing space of my dorm room, and the too-familiar squares of dehydrated noodles were often the only thing saving me from the particular misery of campus dining halls. Eventually, I began to resent those ramen packets and their watery, never-quite-satisfying yields. In my post-college days, ramen dinners have been borne out of desperation.
The ramen craze currently pulsing through Kansas City is designed around an entirely different dish. At places like Columbus Park Ramen Shop, Shio, Summit Grill & Bar and, soon, Komatsu, ramen has been redeemed and elevated to cult status. Forget the dubious chicken-flavored powder; these days, a bowl of ramen means flavorful broth, chewy noodles and an artful assembly of fresh meat and vegetables. It is a steaming hot bowl of yes, and there is nothing desperate or shameful about it.
Ramen is raging in Kansas City right now, and it felt only appropriate to take stock of this foodie trend and get at the heart of it.
Columbus Park Ramen Shop
Josh Eans has the distinction of being the chef who first brought ramen to Kansas City, when he opened Columbus Park Ramen Shop in the garage adjacent to his breakfast and lunch joint, Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout, in October 2015.
“We were itching to do something else,” Eans says, “and we tried to decide what we were going to do, and for us, the space spoke to a ramen shop. Jon Ponzer, our chef, was really interested in doing ramen at the time, and as we got into it, it kept developing. But it kind of started with the space, and the understanding that Kansas City — and America in general was interested in this new age of ramen. It had this magical allure. And we wanted to be the first to bring it here and do it well.”
The menu at Columbus Park isn’t extensive: four bowls of noodles, plus a “daily pickle” starter. But Eans makes the most of his selection. The name of a ramen bowl generally refers to the seasoning of the broth, and at Columbus Park, the broth is the star of the dish.
Eans has a tonkotsu ramen, of course — one of the most classic preparations, made with a pork broth and white miso. Eans pairs his with braised country pork jowl and pickled bean sprouts. The shoyu broth is made with a soy sauce — in Eans’ case, a chicken stock and dashi blend — and it’s finished with roasted Amish chicken, marinated shiitake and a farm egg. The same broth again is used in the kimchi ramen, featuring house kimchi and pork sausage. For the vegetarians, there’s a mushroom and charred leek with miso broth and seasonal vegetables.
Every bowl Eans serves, he tells me, follows the same basic tenants of ramen, adhering to the five components that make the dish what it is. There’s the noodles, of course — an alkaline noodle, wheat-based and made with alkaline salts (Eans orders his from artisan purveyors Sun Noodle); an aromatic fat (chicken fat in the shoyu, black garlic oil in the mushroom ramen); the stock; the seasoning for the stock; and, lastly, the toppings. With the exception of the noodles, most ramen seasonings and toppings are left up to the chef.
I’ve been a regular at Columbus Park since it opened. I’ve had all the ramen there, but my go-to is always the shoyu. Chunks of super-tender chicken float with a gleaming, halved, fresh farm egg; scallions; and sour marinated shiitake mushrooms. Eans flavors his broth further with yuzukoshō, a powerful spice made with chili peppers and yuzu peel. But perhaps my favorite part of this dish is the surprising crunch of Corn Nuts.
“That’s part of the dry seasoning,” Eans explains. “It’s crushed-up Corn Nuts with crispy chicken skins that we chopped up with local chilies. It’s really this whimsical Missouri thing for us.”
Eans laughs a little, but the locality of his ramen — from the twist on the Corn Nuts to Columbus Park’s commitment to sustainable, local farmers and produce (even the chicken bones purchased for the stock are from free-range Amish farms) — is an integral part of his mission.
“We didn’t go to Japan and learn from a ramen master,” Eans says. “A lot of people don’t like that, because they think it’s not authentic. We’ll get a lot of hate for our ramen; people will say it’s not what they had in Japan, and we’re like, ‘You’re right. It’s not.’ Just like barbecue in America, ramen is regional — each region in Japan has a different style of ramen, and every chef has their own little version. So to say that it’s supposed to be one way is really silly.”
Eans and his wife and business partner, Abbey-Jo, and Ponzer may not have traveled to Japan to study the ancient art of ramen, but that’s not to say they didn’t do their homework. Eans and Abby-Jo went to New York and hit the usual suspects — including the famous Momofuku — and found a few hidden gems. Eans and Ponzer spent three days in Chicago sampling as much of the stuff as they could from the craft shops there.
“We had eight bowls of ramen each in like two days, and we were bloated and sick, but it was fun,” Eans says. “We just wanted to give what we were doing a baseline, since we were figuring it out on our own, and what we tasted gave us confidence. The craft ramen movement is about expressing regionality. Our ramen should taste different than when you go to New York or Japan. I’m not trying to copy a culture that I’ve never been to; that’s not authentic. We’re chef-driven, doing craft ramen.”
I consider my precious bowl of shoyu and the bright assortment of colors: red broth, pale yellow noodles, green strips of scallions. The scent rising from the dish threatens to overpower the pleasure sensors in my brain. Eans certainly does know his craft.
549 Gillis St., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 492-5549, columbusparkramenshop.com
Summit Grill & Bar
Since mid-February, every Tuesday evening finds Summit Grill & Bar in Waldo filling to the brim with hungry guests clamoring for their ramen bowl — whichever one chefs Po Wang and Thomas Paradise have elected to offer that week. There’s only ever one option, and only on Tuesdays, so you can imagine the excitement.
When I stop in on one such Tuesday in April, I’m happy for my reservation. The ramen offered that night is also shoyu, but it hardly resembles the bowl I’m accustomed to at Columbus Park (and, of course, it shouldn’t).
“Shoyu just means ‘soy,’” Taiwan-born Wang tells me, “so I make a soy tare to flavor each bowl. The broth is a clear pork broth, which gives it a cleaner flavor, and it is not seasoned until it goes out, when we add the toppings. For that bowl, we used a Duroc pork shoulder that we braise, char siu-style, in garlic and soy and sake for three hours.”
Wang’s shoyu looks promising: a heaping offering with heavy cuts of pork, ajitsuke tamago (marinated egg in pork juices); green onion; soy-pickled shiitake mushrooms; and a thin, pretty slice of traditional naruto — a white slice of cured fish cake with a pink spiral design. All the toppings and the murky broth obscure my view of the noodles — which Wang also orders from Sun Noodle — but I’m pleased with the heartiness of this bowl. The pork is fatty and flavorful; the mushrooms have sponged up much of the soy marination and pack a powerfully salty, sour flavor that I like instantly.
The noodles, though, were dismaying: Overcooked and clumping, each bite was a mushy, starchy taste that had a way of shutting down an appetite. It’s an easy mistake, but let’s hope it’s one that Wang and Paradise make infrequently when Summit Grill & Bar’s owners, Andy Lock and Domhnall Molloy, open their own ramen shop in the former 75th Street Brewery space (520 W. 75th St.) next door to the Summit Grill & Bar in Waldo by the end of the year. Wang says the Summit ramen shop — which will be called Bōru — will offer a good deal more than just bowls.
“We’re not trying to do a traditional ramen shop,” Wang says. “We’ll have ramen that’s not traditionally Japanese. There’ll be some with Chinese and Korean influences as well. There’ll be appetizer sections, salads and six to eight bowls of ramen. We’ll do fried rice and possibly a fried chicken as well. We want there to be a big range, so if you don’t feel like eating noodles that day, there’s other stuff to get.”
Summit Grill & Bar, 500 W. 75th St., Kansas City, Mo., summitgrillandbar.com
When Shio first opened in April, chef-owner Patrick Curtis would run into a frequent problem nearly every night, an hour or more before he was scheduled to close: He would run out of noodles. It wasn’t totally a matter of inventory: Curtis makes his own.
“I first started wanting to do ramen and working on it in 2011, when I lived in Portland,” Curtis says. “I cooked at a couple ramen restaurants there, and Asian food in general has always been my hobby food. I read a couple books by [New York City ramen masters] David Chang and Ivan Orkin, and I would practice making my own noodles through the years. I had a hand-crank noodle maker that I used. In 2013, I went to a workshop in L.A. with Yamato Manufacturing — they make the machine that I use to make my noodles. I felt like that was the way to do it. From there, it was basically following the recipes and figuring it out.”
Like Columbus Park Ramen Shop, Shio’s menu is also on the small side, with five options: shio, with a chicken dashi broth flavored with sea salt, chicken, pork belly and egg; shoyu, with the same chicken dashi broth flavored with soy sauce and topped with pork belly and shiitake; vegan tonkotsu, with roasted sweet potato, bean sprouts and shiitake; tantanmen, with chicken and pork broth, ground pork, sesame and chilies; and yakisoba, a broth-less dish with stir-fried noodles, bacon, cabbage, onion and bean sprouts. There are also two simple starters: kimchi and shishito peppers.
“We were planning on having pot stickers and stuff, but our kitchen is super-tiny,” Curtis says. “Basically, three of us can fit back there with one of us being a dishwasher, and we don’t really have storage. From the get-go, we were so busy, and I just picked a couple appetizers that work. I really wanted to do pot stickers, but it was too much.”
Curtis’ noodles are thin as capellini, with an off-white color and a roundness that gives them a bouncing look, even in the bowl. When I visited Shio with a couple friends, just two weeks after it opened, we found these enticing noodles swirling around in a clean, cream-colored broth in both the shio and shoyu ramens.
“A lot of places do pork broth, and I’m doing a chicken dashi broth just based on personal preference,” Curtis says. “We use whole chickens or Amish chickens, and the dashi I make from really high-grade kelp. The idea is basically to start with high-end ingredients, which means you get a better product in the end.”
While Curtis’ ramen was delicious, my favorite dish at Shio ended up being the yakisoba. The crunch of vegetables and the fattiness of the bacon, tossed with Curtis’ chewy, graceful noodles, was an unexpected treat. For Curtis, the world of craft ramen means being able to play with his dishes like that.
“A lot of Japanese cuisine is very strict, but if you have alkaline noodles with broth, you can kind of do whatever you want,” he says. “With four ramen restaurants open here by the end of the year, I think it’s up the creator about what they want their bowl to taste like. You can ask 100 people what a shoyu broth is, and you’ll get a hundred different answers, and I think that’s what’s cool about it.”
3605 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 541-3215, shioramenshop.com
When Komatsu opens later this year at 3951 Broadway, the only thing more impressive than the seating capacity — which chef and co-owner Erik Borger estimates capping at around 350 — will be the menu itself. Borger plans to offer up to 25 different ramen bowls with an additional eight premium craft options. I shouldn’t be surprised, really: At his two Il Lazzarone restaurant locations — one in St. Joseph and one in Kansas City’s River Market — Borger’s menu is stacked with 30-something different Neapolitan pizza options. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and Borger is the king of variety.
A few months before the remodeling inside Komatsu was complete, Borger offered me a sampling of both the traditional ramen and the craft ramen he plans for Komatsu. Then-partner Joe West, who has since left Komatsu, arranged a shoyu and a miso ramen.
I’d become well-acquainted with ramen, so I felt I knew what to expect — but these bowls were breathtaking, their artfulness seductive. Two thick, round cuts of marbled char sui pork loin sat in a clear shoyu broth — Borger’s recipe roasts both pork and chicken bones for his stock — alongside chunks of braised pork shoulder, plump pickled shiitake mushrooms and diced scallion, nori (seaweed) chopped into grasslike tendrils and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. No ramen I’d had yet looked quite as pretty as this.
The star, though, was the miso bowl. A fat lobster tail extended several inches past the rim, and two pink shrimp nestled next to it. A happy-looking clam and a mussel smiled up at me, and I admired the other elements sitting prettily in the dish — a few spring ramps, some fresh corn, scallion, more sesame seeds. This was a showstopper arrangement, the kind of dish that catches the eye of every guest on its way to its final destination — and I could hardly bring myself to eat it, it was so perfectly arranged.
I tried the shoyu first: fatty, oily, tasty — just the way it should be. Those chunks of pork were juicy and succulent, a perfect counter to the bright bite of the pickled shiitake.
But I confess: I had only a few spoonfuls before settling in front of the seafood miso masterpiece. It called to me, like a playful mermaid, and I was only too happy to dive in. The shellfish I made quick work of; I plucked the meat of the clam, the mussel and the lobster out with my fingers, like a hungry monster, anxious to experience every flavor. At last, all traces of seafood gone, I dipped a spoon into the broth. Miso broth is flavored with a paste made from soybeans; Borger’s recipe calls for a light touch, which means the sodium level is perfectly balanced.
Like Columbus Park Ramen Shop and Summit Grill & Bar (and, soon, Bōru), the ramen at Komatsu will also feature Sun Noodles — with a little twist.
“We have a special blend and we have a large variety of noodles,” Borger tells me. “Traditional ramen is not supposed to be all one noodle — it’s supposed to be regional. You’re going to find different noodles in different regions and in different broths. We’re going to do six different types of noodle.”
It’s a subtle point, but as I stuff my face with those meaty, full noodles, I’m grateful for Borger’s attention to detail. For him, giving ramen noodle options is one more nod to creating an authentic ramen experience — and that’s what he will strive to deliver at Komatsu.
“I’m a guy that seeks authentic experiences,” Borger says. “At Il Lazzarone, we go to great length to make sure our pizza is authentic — whatever that means we need to do, we do. We don’t make up stuff; we do research. And as far as Kansas City, Komatsu is the spacious choice. We want people to come and stay as long as they want.”
Borger’s ramen training came from Mr. Fuji, the Tokyo-based ramen master who instructed New York ramen master Ivan Orkin. Borger has been preparing for Komatsu, he says, since the original Il Lazzarone location in St. Joseph opened in 2014, inspired by the ramen he had in New York and driven by the desire to bring that part of Japanese culture to Kansas City.
Though Komatsu is one of several ramen options, Borger hopes that a few points of differentiation — the capacity and the variety of ramen — will help set his restaurant apart. There will also be an enclosed private dining room, seating up to 30, and an attached private bar, seating 22. This space will be called Ikema, Borger says, and it will be a more exclusive, intimate dining experience.
“Ikema is an island off Okinowa with these amazing wetlands,” Borger says. “The vision is: We have this young boy that’s home from primary school, and it’s his life [that the cuisine reflects]. He goes out on the island, and the things he sees are the things we want to cook. It’s really traditional. We’re not going to cook things with jalapeños on it, because we’re not going to find that there. So we’ll have Uni and soft-shell blue crab and spiny lobster and wild boar and Japanese quail and these amazing creatures that you won’t get anywhere else. We’re not calling it fusion. It’s authenticity.”
Borger will be at the helm of both Komatsu and Ikema, which will share the same kitchen and the same staff. If it sounds like a complicated enterprise, Borger doesn’t show any sign of nerves.
“I’m just extremely excited,” he says. “There’s this culture that we want to tap into, and we want everyone to tap into it, too, but we want to be as pure as possible. We want to transport people to another culture through every bite of food.”
Indeed, I found Borger’s seafood miso wholly transportive — down to the last few sips of broth I slurped up. The only complaint I have to offer Borger is that I am too quickly without any ramen in front of me. Endless ramen, I think: That is what I would want my final wish to be. And soon, Kansas City will be blessed just so.
Update: Komatsu St. Joseph and Borger's oyster restaurant, Ostrea, opened in mid-October. Ostrea Kansas City is slated to open next to Komatsu on Broadway soon.
3951 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 599-6263, facebook.com/KomatsuRamenKC